As the Tenebach clan came into clearer view, it was possible to make out a larger than normal number of guards upon the walls. As Luctus approached at the front of the crowd, one of them called out to him. “Patriarch! It’s good that you returned so quickly!”
“I’d like a report on the situation, captain.”
“Yes sir! A few hours ago we received a warning from a wandering cultivator- ah, that man there with you,” he indicated Steve. “I took the opportunity to organize the defenses. We were told they might target the guardian beast, but upon seeing the enemy’s superior forces I decided it best to assure the safety of the clan.” The guard captain inclined his head, “I’m willing to receive any reprimand for my insufficiencies.”
“No need. You did well to prioritize the clan holdings.” Luctus looked in the direction of the guardian beast’s cave. “What’s the situation there?”
“According to our scouts, they are still engaged in the cave, Patriarch. Along with the darkness cultivators we were warned of, there are members of the Boyce and Roldan clans.”
“Very well,” Luctus turned to face the group behind him, specifically the guests of the wedding. “Netanel, I’m sure we can count of the support of the Brandle clan members. I would hope that the rest of you who followed us here aren’t just planning to spectate. Can we ask for your assistance?” He looked specifically at Johannes Dalen, head of the Order of the Amber Heart.
“Of course, the Amber Heart would be glad to support you. I do believe we already chastised those two clans… and working with outsiders to cause strife here in Marble County is a step too far.” He smiled, “Besides, my favorite disciple owes his life to your son.” Technically they’d worked together to save each other, but John wasn’t going to argue about that.
The other guests acknowledged their willingness to help as well. Of course, they’d just run for hours to keep up with the rest of them so it would have been quite inappropriate to refuse. If they didn’t intend to fight, they likely wouldn’t have come with the rest but stayed with the other guests. Both presences and absences would be noted. Some people were left behind at the Tenebach clan, to be replaced with fresh guards and clan members who had duties that kept them away from the ceremony. Then they were heading towards the cave where the guardian beast- who very few knew as Ciaritzal- resided.
Along the way, John and Matayal found themselves gradually shifted towards the front. Luctus smiled as he maneuvered people around. “I hope you’ve been keeping up on your fighting formation training. Because now’s the time to make use of it.”
While John had to admit that wasn’t where his focus had been for the last year, he had at least undertaken similar sorts of training- and in fact dual cultivation with energy was something like a deeper version of fighting formations. He stood next to Matayal and circulated his energy, something much like warming up. “I will do my best. I think Matayal and I should be able to unify most of our forces. Unfortunately, fire is outside of our abilities, Milanovic clan, Lucanus.” It was probably better not to call him Steve in public. There were only a few members of the Milanovic clan present- Alina was among them. She still seemed interested in pursuing Tempkeit, and the relationship between the clans was good enough for them to send her and a few others for the wedding.
“That’s okay,” Steve said, “I’ve never fought as part of a formation. I’d just get in the way.” If Steve hadn’t made it to the Soul Expansion Phase, he might have been an easy target in the upcoming battle- but his individual strength was sufficient enough to hold his own, if he was cautious. Or barring that, if he was just exceptional at combat. John really thought the other transmigrator leaned more towards the latter than the former.
John and Matayal weren’t leading all of the Tenebach and Brandle clans, but they had the largest group. The Soul Expansion Phase elders from the various groups either struck off on their own or formed smaller group formations. By that point they could all sense the combat ahead, swirling darkness and solid earth clashing against a much greater darkness. As they approached the cave the power of those behind them flowed towards John and Matayal. Water and darkness mixed as they combined the energies into a cohesive whole. There seemed to be no obvious problems with the formation, at least- discovering they couldn’t hold it together once actually in battle would have been a disaster.
There was little need to announce themselves on their own territory, but declaring intentions could be useful. Of course, Luctus was not in a forgiving mood. “Society of Midnight. Leave our territory or die.” There was no response- but it seemed they were quite busy with the battle they were already in.
As they made their way into the cave, those who weren’t from the Tenebach clan found their vision greatly hindered by the suffusing darkness. Though some of it was from the darkness cultivators, a majority of it was from Ciaritzal. But just because his power was great compared to theirs didn’t mean the battle was in his favor. As they made their way into the largest cavern they saw more than a hundred cultivators besieging the shifting, ephemeral form of the guardian beast. Among them was an early Consolidated Soul Phase darkness cultivator, an elder of the Society of Midnight.
The Tenebach clan and their allies charged forward wielding their swords, spears, and a large number of stone clubs and other heavy weapons. Half of the enemy turned to face them, stopping their advance. Even Luctus and Netanel were briefly held back by a few opponents, though they fought well next to each other and quickly broke through. Only Johannes Dalen broke through, and he had to slow himself so as to not become isolated.
John and Matayal began to cut their way through enemies, driving a wedge into the enemy forces. The formation of the Amber Heart also drove people back on one side. John wasn’t concerned with killing the opponents as long as they got out of his way- those further back in the formation could deal with them. Soon enough, however, they were met with another formation led by Kasimir Roldan.
“Is that your new wife? A shame, since she’ll be a widow after today.”
John briefly glanced at Matayal. He didn’t even respond to Kasimir, instead saying something to her. “Just send that group over to Renato to deal with. The last time they met he only got to break less than half of his bones.”
“Understood,” Matayal spun her spear, then swept it along, creating wave with the power of those in their formation. Kasimir might have been able to withstand the pressure, but the formation itself might have come apart if he tried. They were quickly transferred around five meters to the left.
That opened up a hole to the core of the combat, where several dozen members of the two earth clans and the Society of Midnight were fighting Ciaritzal. Though many of them had claw marks on their arms, legs, and chest the beast made of shadows was clearly running out of stamina. He could have been fighting for several hours by the time they arrived.
As John and Matayal hurried forward, Ciaritzal turned its head towards them. Even with the ability to see in darkness from his cultivation and improved by that very beast himself, John could barely make a distinction between any part of the face- eyes and teeth were all black on black. But he was certain that the eyes focused straight on him and the teeth turned into a grin. Then only the grin remained, like a canine cheshire cat.
Darkness suffused through the whole cavern, but a sudden surge of it sprang towards John. The surge was followed by attacks from behind it, the earth itself breaking apart and shooting towards him along with blades of swirling darkness. He was preparing himself for those attacks when a voice whispered next to his ear. “Sorry, young master. This might be slightly unpleasant.”
Darkness poured into him. At first it was a refreshing feeling, like the initial blessing he had received. However, as it filled his meridians and pushed its way into his dantian he quickly became overfull. Yet it wasn’t finished. He felt like if he had any more he might explode. It was all he could do to begin expelling darkness as quickly as he could, forming the energy around himself and sending a flood back through the formation. He tried not to overwhelm any individual as he did so, cautious of breaking things apart. It was already strained as the balance was thrown off- Matayal was doing well to hold onto her part, as well as throwing up a barrier of water to resist the attacks.
John staggered back several steps under the force of the attacks, barely maintaining control. Yet more attacks were on the way. But they weren’t left to engage half of the enemy forces on their own. Johannes and the pair of Luctus and Netanel broke through at separate points- Johannes facing off with the other Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator and the other two helping to distract another handful of foes. The rest of the forces were still pushing through the enemy lines.
While the ranged attacks had thrown him off balance, as the enemy surged forward he had to contest with them at a more practical range for earth cultivators. Their greatest might generally came from empowering their weapons and crushing their foes directly. John saw weapons of all sorts, but nothing lighter than a two-handed sword. Together, he and Matayal parried and countered the incoming attacks. Instead of being unable to resist, John found he wasn’t able to use enough energy. He had to do more than just standard attacks. He began throwing together techniques, Gravity Blade powered up to stick to opponent’s weapons and yank them away and Clinging Affliction to eat away at any point he struck. He only managed a small scratch on one burly earth cultivator from the Boyce clan, but along with that was a large mass of darkness energy eating away at him. The man had to withdraw to expunge the energy from himself or face grievous wounds.
Fortunately not every cultivator could attack together, though they quickly gathered into proper formations. The guardian beast had been larger and thus could be attacked by many individuals as well as formations, but its rapid leap into John had disrupted their arrangement. And his own, almost.
With his right hand he used his sword mainly to parry attacks. Matayal’s spear kept others at bay to his left side. Normally he only used his throwing daggers as distractions or surprise attacks, as he was not willing to expend a large amount of power on attacks that could fail completely. Now, however, he was dealing with too much at once. He felt the guardian beast trying to temper how much it was funneling into him at once, but it had its own injuries to deal with. But he could make use of that excess energy by using otherwise wasteful tactics. Each dagger he threw twisted with Clinging Affliction, flying through the darkness of the cave to strike at any target that was convenient. Those who didn’t manage to avoid or properly block the attacks had to focus fully on removing the lingering energy or it would tear them apart.
Inside his dantian, John was doing his best to transform excess darkness into other elements. Air element he used to enhance the speed of himself and Matayal- deflecting boulders with a little bit of wind was useless, and even lightning didn’t affect earth cultivators as much as he would like. Darkness was more easily transformed into earth, however. John began to combine his techniques, Clinging Affliction and Bite of the Gorgon combined together quite well. He managed just a small cut on someone’s wrist and their whole hand turned to stone, and it was spreading towards their elbow before they stopped it. And he couldn’t do that just once. In fact, he had to keep doing it as quickly as he could.
If it weren’t for Matayal’s soothing energy mingling with his own, he thought he might lose control entirely. The reverse empowerment ceremony was one thing- that was properly preparing to control a large amount of energy in a controlled environment. This was Ciaritzal deciding that it needed to take a ride inside him to protect itself. While it wasn’t exactly unreasonable, even the leftover energy from a beast that could take on hundreds of opponents at once was concerning in amount. But he was handling it well enough… and he had plenty of targets to expel excess energy on.